Is it stifling the internet or driving innovation?
While the Trai figures out the issue of whether or not to license over-the-top (OTT) service providers like WhatsApp and Viber—and if so, what the terms of the licence would be—another battle is brewing over net neutrality. And in this case too, it is market leader Bharti Airtel that is leading the charge. The last time around though, when Airtel first spoke of charging a differential tariff for VOIP services, public outcry forced the telco to beat a hasty retreat—though it wasn’t a completely wasted effort since this may have got the telecom regulator to look at the issue and come up with a consultation paper on it. Airtel Zero, the new product that has got one category of netizens quite worked up, is quite simple in its design. At the moment, if Airtel subscribers wish to use, say, a Flipkart app, they have to subscribe to an Airtel data plan. Under Airtel Zero, a subscriber does not need a data plan, the data charges for using the app will be paid for by, in this hypothetical example, by Flipkart. While critics argue this is creating two classes of apps, those who pay Airtel and those who don’t, the telco argues this is confusing the issue—Airtel Zero is quite similar to toll-free services where companies pay telcos for each call that subscribers make. While the debate over whether the internet is meant to be free carries on at the Trai’s open houses, it is worth keeping in mind that paid-for services like Google AdWords ushered in a new reality a long time ago.
Of all the issues being raised about Airtel Zero, the one that looks the most substantive is whether apps that pay Airtel will have a higher speed than those that don’t. If that is the case—and Bharti Airtel is unequivocal that it is not so at all—then there is a clear case of discrimination. It then throws up the issues that came up during the anti-trust cases involving Microsoft and Google. While it is not clear if this falls in the domain of the telecom regulator or the Competition Commission of India (CCI), neither organisation has the capacity to deal with, or monitor, such issues right now. The telecom regulator has done well to flag the issue of OTTs, but for it to do justice to the matter, there is an urgent need to build more capacity on such issues in both Trai and CCI.